The following is an English translation of a Japanese article that I wrote and was published in the October edition of Kendo Jidai (on sale August 25th 2013). Its the story of my kendo student Kubota Suzunosuke who passed away in January of this year and that I introduced on this site back in March. The English version is of course slightly different than the original Japanese. Please note that I have his parents blessings to put this online.
I first met Suzunosuke after the entrance ceremony for the high school that I work at back in April 2010. He came into the kendo-jo carrying his bogu and shinai and asked to join thie club. “No problem” I said, “get your stuff on and join in!” Keiko at my school is kihon-centric and can be pretty tough, but he took to it quickly and I realised even in that first session that I had some potential on my hands.
During short break between kihon and waza practise I saw him sitting at the side of the dojo by himself looking worried. “What’s up?” I asked “I was hit on an unarmoured place and it hurts” he replied. “Well, sometimes that happens, it’s not deliberate. High school kendo is a lot tougher than junior high school level, so you’d better prepare for it” I replied.
That evening I received an email from him: “To tell you the truth, when I was a junior high school student I was very sick and was hospitalised for a long time. I’ve actually had an entire rib removed.”
Primary, junior high school kendo
Suzunosuke began kendo when he was a 1st year primary school student (6 years old) at the kendo club run by Asashi ward (an area in Osaka) police station. His mother Suzumi explains why: “He was a little bit naughty so I thought that by learning budo at the police station they could teach him some discipline.” At Asahi ward police station he was taught kendo by Sakamoto sensei, Toyotomi sensei, and Tanaka sensei. Naturally, when he entered junior high school he joined the kendo club and was taught by Ueda sensei.
Suzuonsuke was living the life of an ordinary young boy when one day he felt something strange on his back. His parents took him to the hospital and were shocked when the doctors declared it “cancer.”
Ewing’s Sarcoma is a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the bone or in soft tissue. Suzonsuke was hospitalised for a year and underwent cancer treatment, including the removal of an entire rib.
During this time, however, he never gave up, and continued to study hard. Eventually he even made it back to the dojo.
High school kendo club
After finding out about his medical history I was a bit worried about the manner he could take part in the clubs activities. I told him that he could take part in keiko under my watchful eye, but that competition was an impossibility, to which he grudgingly accepted. However, after doing keiko with him almost everyday over a few months and seeing his ability increase rapidly, I completely forgot about his surgery or that he ever had cancer. And, even though he was only a first year student, I started using him regularly in shiai.
He was a bright, fun loving, popular kid, and it was to no surprise that the other students selected him to become the club captain when he became a 2nd year student. While working hard in his role as the captan he applied and was accepted to join a study trip to the UK. Before heading over in July (2011), he started to feel something odd in his arm, but dismissing it he went for 10 days to the UK, took part in a gasshuku with another school, and passed his 3dan on his first attempt. However, during all this, it was discovered that his discomfort was in fact cancer.
Needless to say, it was obvious that the cancer relapse caused Suzuonsuke immense difficulties. Despite these, he tried his best to come to school to meet his friends and continue his study. Even though he couldn’t wear bogu, he still came to the dojo and helped teach the younger students. Over time his condition seemed to be getting better and in January 2012 he even managed to get his bogu on and start practising slowly again. Not just myself, but his fellow club members were amazed at his effort.
It was around this time that he emailed Hashimoto Toru, the mayor of Osaka. When he was hospitilised for a year in junior high school he was able to take part in special classes in the hospital offered by Osaka prefecture. However, this system didn’t exist for high school students (its not part of compulsory education in Japan) and he thought it unfair. He emailed the mayor via contact details on the prefecture website and was shocked when he actually got a reply. Hashimoto immediately began investigation into the system and – even more surprising for the slow Japanese bureaucracy – actually instigated it in April of the same year. All of this due to a single email from Suzunosuke.
Suzunosuke started to look a bit healthier and happier and everything seemed to be going fine. In April 2012 he became a 3rd year student and was taking part in keiko on and off. The All-Japan Osaka High School Preliminaries are held every June and are generally regarded as the ‘retirement competition’ for the students at my school (we can’t compete to the top level in Osaka. After retirement, students focus solely on university entrance exams). The way that I choose competition members is first allow the respective boys and girls captains to come up with an order, then for them to discuss it with me before writing the application form. Suzunosuke came up to me with a piece of paper with the boys order on it, and I immediately noticed his name wasn’t on it. “You don’t want to compete?” I asked. “I do” he said. I spent a few days carefully reflecting on whether I should put him into the shiai before finally writing his name down as taisho.
On the day of the shiai he looked like he was composed and concentrated. However, I knew that in the morning he hadn’t taken his pain killers and that he was in a lot of pain. He was waiting until just before the 1st round shiai to take his pills. The team won the first round and then went on to the 2nd. Due to the amount of teams taking part, it was a long wait until the 2nd round. When it came, our loss was decided before Suzunosuke as taisho stepped up. Despite this he bowed, strode in to the shiai-jo and went into sonkyo. At “hajime” he stood up and kiai-ed. His family, his friends, everyone that knew him was literally staring at him. But by this point in the day the pain was back and he literally hadn’t the strength to hold onto his shinai strongly. During the match his shinai was flipped out of his hand twice, the result of the match being a 1-point win by hansoku to his opponent. After the shiai he sat by himself in the arena looking sad. I tapped him on the back and said “You did well.”
30 minutes later all the kendo club members (over 30 students) were assembled and the 3rd year students gave their retirement speech. Suzuonsuke, being the captain, went last. His speech was short, simple, and most of all, positive.
His last fight
Shortly after this he started to spend more time travelling to and from hospital. It was at this time that he joined a RELAY FOR LIFE charity event here in Osaka. The event was held in the south, but Suzunosuke wondered if it couldn’t be held at his high school, which is situated right in the centre of Osaka, facing the castle.
Day by day his condition got worse, but even then he never gave up on his dream of graduation high school and going to university. On the 19th and 20th of January 2013 he sat the gruelling Japanese university exam. At this point, he couldn’t walk and could barely speak. His family, friends, teachers, and medical staff were amazed at his willpower.
The day after the exams he took a turn for the worse. For a moment he seemed to have even got over this, but on the evening of the 30th of January 2013, he slipped away. That evening I was called to the hospital room and – after his body had been washed in the formal Japanese manner – I helped clothe him in the school keikogi and hakama.
What he left us
Suzunosuke was a someone who “did” things, a “doer.” His single email to the mayor brought in education reforms. His idea of hosting a Relay for Life event at his school also become reality: it will be held in Otemae High School in central Osaka on the 12th and 13th of October. These are things that you may have thought was impossible from a single sick high school student from a hospital bed, but he did them. What he tells all of us is that whatever difficult situation you may be in, you should never give up, and to always try your best.
His friends called him simple “Suzu” which means “bell” in English. Bells come in various shapes and sizes, with correspondingly different sounds and tones. The bell that was Suzu was struck, and the sound – to those who knew him – was bright, though short, and will continue, I believe, to reverberate for a very long time.
Words: George McCall
Pictures: Kubota Suzumi, Kubota Kazuo, George McCall
Relay for Life (Osaka): http://relayforlife.jp/osaka/
Many thanks to Andy at All Japan Budogu for donating a couple of hundred tenugui to be sold at Relay for Life next month. 100% of the proceeds go to charity.
If you happen to be in Osaka that weekend feel free to pop in for a chat (and while you are at it, buy a tenugui and donate to a good cause!).